(Editor’s Note: After this was published the Huskies scored a 79-23 win over UMass Lowell on Dec. 15 in Gampel Pavilion to open the 2020-21 season. Freshman Paige Bueckers scored 17 points with nine rebounds, five assists and five steals in her collegiate debut, earning Big East Freshman of the Week honors.)
It is no secret coaches like to be in control of things, from practice to team uniforms and daily routines along with whatever else is necessary for success. It also is no secret that the most successful coaches know how to adjust their methods and help a team find the path to winning when they run into unexpected situations on or off the field of play.
With the first four games of the 2020-21 Huskies women’s basketball season cancelled or postponed because of positive COVID-19 test results and a pause in full team practices until Dec. 8, Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma likens the situation to his experience coaching the U.S. Women’s National Basketball Team to Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016. While other national teams play together for months, players on the American squad arrive from their various professional teams just a few days before starting to compete in qualifying tournaments.
“I would always go into it saying every other team has had months to get ready. We have five days, but you figure it out,” Auriemma said. “Not having those [first] four games and not being able to be with the team as an entire group until Dec. 8, obviously that changes everything we had planned. Like everything else this year, you just roll with it, make adjustments and move on. You never know what anything is for sure, or when anything is guaranteed or it’s ending. You’re always in a [situation of] this is what it is right now.”
“Right now” also includes returning to the Big East, where Auriemma’s Huskies won eight of their 11 NCAA titles along with 37 conference regular season and tournament titles, 19 regular season and 18 tournament. During UConn’s last 10 years in the conference before moving to the American Athletic Conference (AAC), as many as seven other Big East teams advanced with the Huskies to the NCAA Championship Tournament as competition in the conference improved each year. More recently, conference members DePaul, Marquette, Seton Hall, Villanova and Creighton have played in March. DePaul has won the last three conference tournament championships.
During the virtual Big East media day in late October, DePaul women’s basketball head coach Doug Bruno was asked how he thought the return of the Huskies to the conference would affect other teams.
“UConn is the best program in the history of all college basketball, and I’m old enough to have watched very closely the [John] Wooden teams of the sixties and seventies [at UCLA],” said Bruno, who served as an assistant coach to Auriemma twice with the U.S. Women’s National Team. “It’s absolutely going to lift us. This Big East, since realignment, has been as tough as the old Big East. It just didn’t get the recognition.”
With the departure of All-American Megan Walker and Crystal Dangerfield, the 2020 WNBA Rookie of the Year, Auriemma returns to the Big East with a roster of 11 players comprised of six freshmen, two sophomores and three juniors, including one transfer. However, it is not the first time the Hall of Fame coach has had to seek success with a young squad.
“The last time we had seven players that had not suited up ever for Connecticut was in 1988,” Auriemma said. “That’s a long time ago, but we had a great year that year. We actually won the Big East championship for the very first time with those seven new players.”
On Thursday, Dec. 10, Auriemma told reporters he sees progress in his first year players, much as he would after initial practices, but without having played games other lessons can not be taught.
“The freshman are all going to improve because everything is new for them. You look at them two months ago and you look at them today, they’ve improved tremendously to the point where when you have them out in certain lineups they can really look like they play college basketball,” he said. “If we had played four or five games up this point, I could tell you definitively, yeah, this is the progress these kids have made. You can see it. Being able to sustain it on a regular basis has been difficult, but not having any games probably contributes to that because if we had a game a couple of weeks ago, we would be able to show them — this is how it goes from practice to games. this is how the correlation goes. But we haven’t had a chance to do that yet.
Despite such a young roster, Big East coaches indicated their respect for the Huskies by unanimously voting for UConn to win the conference title and selecting four players for preseason recognition.
Junior Christyn Williams, a guard who averaged 15.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game last year, was named Big East Women’s Preseason Player of the Year. Olivia Nelson-Ododa, a junior forward who averaged 10.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, and redshirt junior guard Evina Westbrook, who sat out last year after transferring from Tennessee after averaging 14.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, were both preseason All-Big East Team selections.
Freshman guard Paige Bueckers, the top recruit in the nation who as the Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year, was the unanimous selection as Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year.
“This is obviously is a different Big East and we’ve got a couple of returning players in Christyn and Olivia,” Auriemma said. “They’re in their third year playing for us and they have the experience of playing and a lot of big games, winning a lot of big games and playing in the Final Four. We’re really going to rely on them heavily for a lot of things on and off the court. That’s always the key to a team’s success –what kind of leadership you’re getting from your upperclassmen. We’re hopeful that Evina can shake off some of the rust of not playing a lot during the last year or year and a half, and then coming off of surgery. Those three, I think, are going to be a big focal point for our team and how well they play the season will determine what kind of season we have.”
Williams said she and Nelson-Ododa, along with Westbrook, have embraced their leadership responsibilities as older players and that their younger teammates are eager to learn.
“We have a lot more responsibility this year,” she said. “The younger guys have been so good. They have a willingness to learn and they listen. They’re very competitive. It’s been good. They’ve made it easier for us.”
Bueckers said she understands there are expectations that come with being a highly regarded player in Storrs.
“Coach is always talking to me about just focusing on being a better teammate and not focus on the outside noise because I haven’t done anything yet. I have a lot to prove and just a lot to work on,” she said. “When I have the ball in my hands a lot I’m going to have to use my voice offensively and defensively. We can’t rely on our three upperclassmen to do everything for us. We have to make it easier for them. We have six freshmen so there obviously has to be a leader in that group as well. I’m just trying to step up and follow Christyn, Liv, and Evina’s role.”
Auriemma said Bueckers understands the glare of the spotlight and that she is handling the situation well.
“She’s a great teammate. She’s easy to coach and be around with her teammates,” he added.” I don’t think Paige single handedly is going to come in here and win us a national championship. That’s not how this works. The other young players are all going to contribute in their own way, some of them more than others.”
SNY will continue its coverage of the Huskies during the 2020-2021 season beginning on Dec. 12 at 1 p.m. when the Huskies play UMass Lowell at Gampel Pavilion. With the postponement of Tuesday’s game against Butler due to a positive COVID-19 test by someone in the women’s basketball program, the Huskies will open conference play on Dec. 17 at Seton Hall. Big East Conference games also will be on Fox Sports and the CBS Sports Network. Radio coverage will be on the UConn IMG Sports Network led by 97.9 FM ESPN.